Whether it’s pursuing a new geography, a new people or ethnic group, or a new generation, growing or expanding your church through a multisite approach involves taking new ground for the Kingdom.
But what are some of the biggest challenges you’ll likely face as a pastor when launching your first multisite church? And how about church mergers? Is that a consideration for your church? What’s your plan for leadership succession? Better yet, what makes a great multisite leader in the first place?
Don’t worry. You’re not the only one asking these questions.
In episode 3 of the Alignment Conference podcast, Dave Travis, CEO of Leadership Network, pulls from his 20+ years of experience with multisites to offer his thoughts on the obstacles you’ll confront along the way toward launching your next congregation, ways to prepare your leadership team, and what to consider with church mergers, acquisitions, and adoptions.
Read the Full Transcript Below:
Evan McBroom: Welcome to The Aspen Group Alignment Conference Podcast where we’re talking about launching your next church. Whether you’re looking at multisite, or planting, a merger or otherwise, this conference is for church leaders who are thinking strategically about expansion.
I’m Evan McBroom, founder at Fishhook, and it’s super fun for me that I get to emcee the Alignment Conference, which is going to be held on October 17 at Thrive Christian Church in Westfield, Indiana. That’s a suburb just north of Indianapolis. You can learn more at AlignmentConference.com.
I’m joined in the studio today by Marian Liautaud, director of marketing for Aspen Group. Marian, how are you?
Marian Liautaud: I’m good, Evan. How are you?
Evan McBroom: I’m good. Are you having fun?
Marian Liautaud: Yeah, I am. These are fun interviews.
Evan McBroom: They’re great conversations. We’re talking with leaders that will be presenting at the Alignment Conference, and we’re super excited today to be joined by Dave Travis, CEO of Leadership Network. Dave, how are you?
Dave Travis: I’m well. Good to be with you today.
Evan McBroom: We’re excited that you’re here. Marian, kick us off if you would. Give us a little background about the conference itself. It’s about a pretty important intersection, right?
Marian Liautaud: Yeah, Aspen hosts an annual conference each year that’s geared for senior pastors and ministry leaders. We call it Alignment Conference because we like to look at the intersection of culture, leadership, ministry, and facilities, and all of the ways that those are important components for strategically operating as a church.
This year, we’ve honed in on the theme of Launching Your Next Church. We, a year ago, released some great research with Barna Group called More Than Multisite and we’re going to take a second look at that and take a deeper dive with some great leaders, like Dave, who can really help leaders understand how to launch new congregations well.
Evan McBroom: Awesome. It’s like the more we know, the more questions we have, and so really it’ll be exciting to dive into this with Dave.
Marian Liautaud: Yeah, great. Dave, I want to just ask you a couple of questions. Leadership Network has been involved with the multisite movement for years, so you guys know a lot and you’ve seen hundreds of churches do this. Could you just tell us a little bit about Leadership Network and what your part in the multisite movement has been?
Dave Travis: Sure. Leadership Network is a 33-year-old organization that has primarily worked over the past years with larger innovative churches in the United States and Canada. We ran a program in Europe, as well, for about 10 years.
The beginnings of the multisite movement for me—and for Leadership Network—go back to around 1996 when at one of our senior pastor forums one of the pastors there in a mainline tradition said, “We’re thinking about opening a second site.” There had been a couple Baptist churches that had done it before that, but he said, “Our bishop is giving us a problem in opening this second site. We’ve already bought the property, and we’re trying to debate whether we should relocate out there or plan a second site.” We thought, “Oh, that sounds interesting. I wonder how many other churches are thinking in this way.”
In 1998, I got to meet with a particular church with some of my staff. We heard how they had planted their second site and were moving towards their third. And we just looked at each other and said, “This is going to be big if churches catch on to this.” In 2001, we held our first gathering of multisite churches. We had found at that point 128 multisite churches in the United States.
Evan McBroom: Wow.
Dave Travis: That was 2001. We pulled a group together—we had about 90 people show up that day. I remember the day very well because it happened to be September 11, 2001. Those churches came together, and ever since then we have operated some type of programming for churches in the multisite arena. We’ve worked with over 500 churches over those years in either helping them to launch their multisite or go from four or more. In fact, right now we have a program going where it’s churches, I think the low number is about 10.
Marian Liautaud: Wow.
Dave Travis: There’s a small cadre of churches, of course, that have more than 10 sites.
Marian Liautaud: Good. So you’ve got a wealth of knowledge and expertise with this. I’m curious, I’m sure it’s shifted over the years, but what are you currently seeing as the biggest driver for why churches are choosing to go multisite?
Dave Travis: If I could give you a generalized statement that I think describes almost all of them, it’s all about taking new ground. Sometimes that ground is geographic, sometimes that ground is a new people group or ethnic group, sometimes that new ground is a new generation. Most of the churches that are now moving into the multisite models and approaches are all about taking ground for the kingdom. They might express it in different ways, but that’s really at the core what they’re trying to do. In some ways, that’s a growth edge. So it’s like we’re looking to grow and expand, but a lot of times it’s framed and phrased into, “We really want to take this new ground for the kingdom cause.”
Evan McBroom: As they take that ground, what do you find, Dave, are some of the biggest challenges for pastors who are launching that first multisite church?
Dave Travis: Actually, in the first multisite church the biggest challenge is getting your existing congregation and existing staff team to wrap their heads around the idea. A lot of times the biggest challenge is actually internal, and so it’s figuring out why are we doing this? Usually, in most cases, things are going well here, why would we even think about this?
We actually have a program now that we call Multisite JumpStart. It is specifically focused on how do you get to that, what really is your second site. Sometimes it’s framed as your first site. Well, your first site’s probably the one you’re on now.
Evan McBroom: Right.
Dave Travis: But the second site is kind of that first step. It kind of goes back to … Some of you may have seen the video before of the first follower, the guy that gets up and starts dancing at the rock concert.
Marian Liautaud: Oh, yeah.
Dave Travis: It’s not about the first guy, it’s about the second guy that starts saying, “Oh, hey, this is kind of cool. Let’s go along.” One of the big challenges you have early on is getting people in your congregation on board.
The second biggest challenge is making some decision points as to what kind of approach or model is going to fit both your church’s culture, and then the community you’re either going to or the people you’re trying to serve. What approach is going to work? Is that going to be video, is it going to be live teaching? There’s a lot of—a myriad of questions. Is it going to be a temporary facility, a permanent facility? Some hybrid in between even? Making those decisions are the next big decisions.
Marian Liautaud: I’m really curious from a leadership perspective, some of the research we’ve done on millennials shows that there’s—with the millennial generation—there’s just a real entrepreneurial kind of creative spirit. I’m wondering, are you seeing that play into younger pastors liking the multisite model because they sort of get to be entrepreneurs? Is that part of what’s happening?
Dave Travis: I don’t know if it’s … I mean, the younger pastors that are planting churches are going to be entrepreneurial whether it’s multisite or not. Twenty years ago when I joined Leadership Network—22 years ago now—everyone wanted to have a large church building that served a lot of people, and they wanted to have two or three services that were huge. Over the last 10 years that model, everyone now—especially if you’re younger pastor and you’re planting a church—the goal is to be multisite. I think the big shift has been from thinking mega in size to thinking multi. Still may be a large church when you look at the total number of people, but looking at multiple locations as the primary driver of that. Even among the top 100 churches in America now, I think the current number is a little over 70 that are multisite, multi-location churches.
That’s one end of the spectrum. But even now, I think the most rapid growth is coming kind of in the mid-sized church. Those churches right at 1,000 that are planting, starting new sites that are smaller in size. Most of the next generation pastors that we work with—we have a program for churches over 800, senior pastors under 43 years old—most of those now, if they’re not multisite, they’re headed that way very fast.
Marian Liautaud: Who makes a great multisite leader?
Dave Travis: Well, of course, what multisite really takes is a team of people at all levels of leadership. It’s not just about the lead pastor or the primary pastor, it’s really about having the whole team. Especially if you use a campus pastor model in your second, third, fourth sites, that choice of a campus pastor is critically important, regardless of whether it’s a video model or a live teaching model. So, what type of leader is a hard question to answer. It takes someone who’s willing to be creative and willing to be tired all the time.
Marian Liautaud: Sign me up.
Evan McBroom: Where do I, yeah, where do I join?
Dave Travis: Yeah, any size church has that, but it does take someone who’s willing to work collaboratively with other leaders if you’re going to be dispersed in more than one location.
Marian Liautaud: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Another thing you’ve talked about, too, is church mergers, and you’ve said that you like what you’re seeing there. Can you talk a little bit about mergers? What’s happening with that? Just tell us a little bit.
Dave Travis: Well, let’s be clear on our terms for a minute. There were mergers for a long time in many traditions, and usually the merger is we take Church A and put it with Church B and we end up with one congregation. That model was followed for many years by many of the traditions. United Methodist Church, when they were formed back in the 60s, they took two different traditions, put them together, and they said, “You know, in a certain geography we really only want one of these congregations. We’re going to go to the best building, and we’re going to put those together as one.” Now what we really have is what Dr. Warren Bird, who is I think going to be one of the speakers at the Alignment Conference, and Jim Tomberlin, and I think Jim’s also a speaker, is that right?
Marian Liautaud: Right. Jim will be there this year. Warren, unfortunately we couldn’t get our schedules synced up.
Dave Travis: Oh, I’m sorry.
Evan McBroom: We do love Warren.
Marian Liautaud: We love Warren. Next year.
Dave Travis: I their book, Better Together, they describe a better language, I think, frame for this, which is lead church and joining church. In most of the times the joining church is smaller, the joining church is needing revival or rejuvenation, and the lead church can provide that. The pros of doing mergers is usually the lead church—the stronger church—can provide both programming, staff infrastructure, financial infrastructure to help a new site, or a merged site, turn itself around, get back off the ground, maybe turn around a declining situation.
We’ve also seen, though, in the last five years I would say, the case where we’ve had a strong lead church, but also a fairly strong joining church. But what’s going on at the joining church is their long time leader is retiring or moving off the scene, and they haven’t prepared a successor. They’ve seen a stronger church, usually in their own local community or nearby, and they said, “You know what? We really like the way they’re doing things over there. I think we’d be better off together.” We’re seeing a lot more of that.
The other place we’re seeing a lot of what you framed as merger or acquisitions are in the more rural areas and exurban areas where we have a number of congregations that we’re seeing that they may not have huge sites—a large site may be 400 people and that’s considered really large—but they’re adopting, adapting the model into 100 person sites spread throughout a geography. Trying to put those at strategic places and merging with churches that may be struggling that already have a building and rapidly expanding in those kinds of regions.
Evan McBroom: Does the hostile takeover work in this setting? I’m guessing not.
Dave Travis: Well, actually, hostile takeover’s not quite the right word, but it is an acquisition and takeover. The easiest model to implement is when the joining church says, “Look, were going to give up all leadership to the lead church and let the lead church make decisions as to who will be on the leadership team, how this place will be governed, and how it’s going to relate to the lead church.”
Marian Liautaud: Interesting.
Dave Travis: Of course, as you probably know, we have numerous churches now that have that as a strategy, have a defined process. They can make these decision fairly quickly as to whether they want to acquire it. Now what’s happening with many of our congregations that we serve, kind of the base church, the lead multisite church is being approached by numerous other congregations saying, “Will you adopt us?” And they’re able to say, “Well, here’s our checklist. Follow our checklist. And if you meet these criteria and we come to terms, yup, we’ll do it.”
Evan McBroom: Wow.
Marian Liautaud: Interesting. Dave, you guys have done some work in the area of succession planning. I’m wondering for, just in general, we know it’s a pretty hot topic right now, but as it relates to multisites, what is the importance of succession planning?
Dave Travis: Succession planning’s important regardless in most larger churches. In a smaller church, it’s not as critical an issue. But in larger churches that have tended to be more leader focused, those are always going to be strategic issues that have to be addressed. As multisite churches think about succession planning, the truth is we don’t know quite yet. We’re now seeing several things happen in the multisite movement that we sort of expected and now are coming to reality.
One way to look at the multisite movement is church planting on the installment plan. A church joins or plants a new site a ways away, and then after 10 or 15 years and the current lead pastor says, “You know, it’s about time for me to retire. I think we need to spin off these three sites and they need to be their own congregation. They need to be independent.” We are seeing some of that.
The other thing that we see when it comes to succession planning is the rapid rise of teaching teams and leadership teams where either there’s a natural leader that can take over the whole system, or there are natural leaders that will essentially subdivide the system of sites, if they’re more than 10, and say, “Well, these three are going to be under this person’s leadership and is going to take on this name and this identity. This other group over here with this leader.” We’re going to see more of that.
The biggest example there, of course, just in the last two weeks: Redeemer Church in New York City. That was their plan really for the last 10 years is that when Tim Keller retires they will spin off all their sites and independent congregations. They’re still going to have a common back office, but they will be independently governed. That’s the most prominent one there. And we have a lot of other clients that are talking that direction, but that’s probably where they’re headed.
Evan McBroom: Dave, what’s your hope for a conference day like this when you come and are face to face with church leaders? What’s your hope for them?
Dave Travis: Well look … For them. I thought you meant for me.
Evan McBroom: Well, you can tell me both.
Dave Travis: Any time I go anywhere I just want to have a good time, and tell my stories, and have people laugh and enjoy it, and maybe learn something along the way. I would hope that people can pick up one practical idea that they can implement in the next 30 days, and then one big Aha that kind of grinds in their head for about a year where they don’t know quite what to do with it, but they knew it has some kind of implication for the future of their leadership and their church. Then I think I want them to walk away saying, “Oh, you know what? There is real help available in this area.” Whether that’s through a partner like Leadership Network or the Aspen friends or any of the other speakers that are there that they could say, “You know what? I’ve got some follow-up questions. I know who now who I can turn to to get some answers.”
Evan McBroom: That’s awesome, and I like the expectations and hopes for yourself, as well, which I think with good certainty we could deliver on all that we’ve just said.
Marian Liautaud: We should have fun together.
Evan McBroom: We should.
Dave Travis: I have a good time wherever I go.
Marian Liautaud: Yup, that’s pretty clear.
Evan McBroom: We see it. Dave Travis, CEO of Leadership Network, thanks for being with us today.
Dave Travis: I thank you for having me. Good to be with you.
Evan McBroom: You bet. Marian, thanks as always. And again, you can learn more about the conference at AlignmentConference.com. You can learn more and register there. Again, the date’s October 17 at Thrive Christian Church in Westfield, Indiana, just north of Indianapolis. That’s all for this edition of The Aspen Group Alignment Conference Podcast.